Who are we that we treat the weak and defenseless with such contempt?
It’s a question the Irish had to ask themselves this year when it emerged that 796 forgotten children and babies had been buried in an unmarked grave in Tuam, County Galway over the life of its now notorious mother and baby home.
But it’s a question we’re forced to ask ourselves again this week as revelations come to light of a shocking elder abuse crisis in an Irish care home uncovered in an infuriating new documentary.
In a secretly filmed investigation into the treatment of residents at Swinford, County Mayo care home called Aras Attracta – an institution for adults with severe learning disabilities named after a local saint – we are shown 53-year-old Ivy McGinty being repeatedly denied the use of the bathroom by an unconcerned staff-member.
“If you died Ivy, I wouldn’t bring you to the toilet,” the care worker tells the obviously distressed resident, who – because she is unable to speak – has to tug at her own clothes to communicate her needs.
The staff member then airily instructs her colleagues not to bring Ivy to the toilet, and later on Ivy is dismissively shooed away.
Later one worker hits her over the head with a ring binder, as the obviously disorientated resident paces between each of the women who are tasked with her care.
In another lamentable scene, Ivy is dragged roughly along the floor after being denied permission to sit on her favorite chair. On another occasion she is struck by a care worker and told: “You’re wet. I know you are – but you can stay in it.”
Ivy is left to sit in her own urine. The documentary goes on to catalogue multiple examples of vulnerable residents being slapped, kicked, pushed around, hit with keys and roughly handled.
In any other context what we see would reduce an ordinary person to outraged tears. Not the unsympathetic care workers of this house of horrors, though. Instead of offering help, scorn and sadism appear to be their daily stock in trade.
When an institution goes this disastrously wrong the fault must be considered systemic. The “few bad apples” myth is one of the most insuperable barriers to reform of a multi-tiered and dysfunctional care system.
Fergus O’Dowd, a Fine Gael TD (MP), first revealed many of the excesses some years ago in Leas Cross nursing home, after which there was much talk of reform. He says there has been little improvement. Speaking about Freedom of Information queries he has made about all nursing homes O'Dowd states:"Claims made in the Freedom of Information request released to me which covered all residential services for disabled people include a resident who was near death but was refused hospital care until it was almost too late; a resident who died of chronic constipation; severe neglect and systems failures; that a thirty page report about abuse in a home was greeted by laughter by those in charge; staff members continuously tormenting residents; that residents are prisoners in the home; that a sedated service user has been in a zombie state for over a year; allegation of a resident raped and beaten; residents abused and dirty etc."
Ireland’s care institutions already have a lamentable history of abuse and neglect, with low wages, long hours, inadequate training, lack of oversight or screening all cited as contributing factors.
Thanks to the financial crisis, the Irish government cut spending on healthcare at the same time the public's financial strains lead to more demand for healthcare services. That strain has apparently reached a breaking point.
As of yesterday every name of every employee at the Aras Attracta care home has been scrubbed from the website – so attempts to shield employees from the consequences of the report does not suggest a culture of responsibility is taking over just yet.
But what to make of these utterly distressing images of the powerful abusing the weak? What happens to a person or an institution so that empathy is abandoned and cruelty takes its place? The angry abusers on camera are mostly female, which upends our cozy assumptions about their predisposition toward responsibility and care.
Clearly something deeper is going on that requires the insights of psychologists. Famed developmental psychologist James W. Prescott, in his extensive research into primate child-mother bonding, noted that when the child-mother bonding process is disrupted, violence and fear-based behavior followed in the young primates he studied.
Prescott suggested that the same dynamic functions for human beings through the systemic breakdown of empathy. He concluded that the disrupted child-mother bonding process was an absolute predictor of the later emergence of violence, hierarchy, including rigid gender roles, a dominatory psychology and violent territorial acquisition.
Prescott’s research also showed how over time disruptive practices become the “norm” and each new generation passes on these practices, as the society in question begins to demonstrate a clear lack of empathy, and violence is codified into its character.
That study has sobering implications for post-colonial and post-theocratic Ireland – and indeed every culture that has suffered the rupture and loss that were visited on us.
Meanwhile the perpetrators in this latest outrage will eventually be identified, but it’s quite possible those responsible for the outrages will escape justice through porous Irish bureaucratic loopholes.
Perhaps the prospect of actual jail terms for their actions may be the only deterrent to prevent these kinds of abuses from occurring in the future. The reform of the law to allow this kind of action to be taken should become a national priority.
This is the just the tip of a deeply disturbing iceberg. Just remember – some day it could be you in their care.